Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log, a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 358 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
6/9/99 W Toronto (A) 2-0 Reed 12 77-75 W 4-3 (14)
Excuse me while I check in with the front desk.
Longest game I ever went to at Shea Stadium.
Four hours, thirty-five minutes.
Day game or night game?
Night. Definitely night.
Well, the night helps, but that’s not that many innings or that many hours, historically speaking in Shea terms.
I’m aware of that. But I do have some good stories.
I wouldn’t bother you with this if I didn’t.
Is this another of those journey of self-discovery Flashbacks or was this actually a good game?
I’d say it was a good game.
Do the Mets actually win this game? We’ve been getting some complaints that the Mets never seem to win in these Flashbacks.
Trust me. It’s a win worthy of Mets Walkoffs.
Uh-huh…you got anything longer than fourteen innings? There’s a twenty-five inning game on file. I don’t suppose you went to that one.
No, wasn’t there for that.
What about the twenty-three innings in 1964. That was seven hours and twenty-three minutes and it was the second game of a doubleheader. A half-hour longer and it would have lasted from May into June. Were you there for that?
I was like a year old then!
I didn’t ask your age. I asked if you were there.
No, I wasn’t there on May 31, 1964.
Well, all right, if that’s the longest you’ve got. You sure it was good and not just long?
It was both.
All right. Go ahead.
I do want to tell you about my longest game, but I am a little disappointed I can’t serve up a really impressive number. That Memorial Day twinbill in ’64 was really something, I’ve been hearing all my life, but that’s a full nine innings out of my price range. And the twenty-five innings ten years later? I vaguely recall watching it go into extras on Channel 9, but even I wasn’t awake, at the age of eleven, to see Hank Webb wing that pickoff attempt up the right field line so Bake McBride could score from first on September 11-12, 1974. Despite being a most nocturnal Mets fan, I’m afraid I don’t have one of those legendary marathons in my Log. Sorry about that.
But I’ve got this one, and I’m quite fond of it. It is from the most magical year in Mets history that didn’t result in a pennant and those of us who stayed to the better (not bitter) end knew right away we had taken part in one of its most magical nights. And mornings.
It is my pleasure and honor to set the Flashback machine for the very first time to 1999, specifically to 6/9/99, a night for buffoons, for groupies, for gullibility, for extremism, for uninformedness, for camouflage, for comebacks, for ties, for heat, for long relief, for adequate fly balls, for unlikely victory, for setting a tone, for turning a page and for two seventh-inning stretches — one now, one later.
Gosh, where to begin?
Let’s start with the ’99 Mets themselves. They weren’t yet quite the ’99 Mets who earned that faint-praise banner over the right field wall, the one that credits them for their Wild Card and NLDS success, the one that could just as easily say “1999” and say it all. The Mets who entered June 9 had been playing well…for three days. For eight days before that, they were playing terribly (0-8 to the Diamondbacks, Reds and local team of unknown origin) and getting coaches fired. Out went Apodaca and Niemann and Robson. In came Wallace and Jackson and Brantley. Did it matter? Bobby V, who was also thought a goner in some circles, must have thought so. On the night Steve Phillips showed three coaches the door, the Mets had played 55 games and had 27 wins to show for it. The sharks were snapping at Bobby’s heels. You’re doomed, Bobby, right? Right?
Wrong, said the embattled manager. Give me another 55 games. I’ll win…40! That’s how many! I’ll go 40-15! He might have used first-person plural, but no doubt he was thinking singular. Everybody laughed, but with Dave Wallace tending the pitchers and Al Jackson watching the pen and Mickey Brantley working on swings, the Mets won a game. Then another. Then another. They were 3-0; all the Mets had to do was go 37-15 and Bobby V would be the genius he said he was.
My phone rang at work, at the ol’ beverage magazine. It was Ed from a major brewer. Ed from a major brewer was a fan of some local team of unknown origin. His job got him access to tickets for Mets games, games Ed had no interest in attending, games for which Ed could be a nice guy and share the wealth with those would value them. Ed had been favoring me, the only Mets fan he seemed to know, with the occasional company seats intermittently since 1995. The Mets had never lost when he did me that solid.
“I’ve got four for Wednesday night against the Blue Jays,” Ed told me. “Do you want ’em?”
I never turned down Ed.
Four fine field box seats on the third base side. One for me. One for Laurie a few desks over since Laurie had regularly favored me with freebies when she got her hands on them. One for my new pal Richie whom I met via AOL over the winter and could now say I’d known since 1962 if he could make it (he could). And one, since he happened to be standing nearby as Laurie and I were making our getaway plans, for Yuri, the slightly off-center ad salesman and Pirates fan who didn’t really know baseball (couldn’t properly pronounce Stargell and had never heard the phrase “junior circuit”) but was kind of fun when he didn’t want you to mention his peanut-flavored soda client in your story.
Yuri, Laurie and I took the 7 out from the city. Yuri, away from the office, was a different sort. He wasn’t, how to put this…a jerk. He was actually quite engaging. Though others would supercede him in my esteem many hours later, he became my hero on that subway ride, explaining in detail too exact to be BS how he had stared down an evil company executive to shake loose a commission he had been owed. I left Manhattan rolling my eyes at Yuri. I arrived in Queens almost looking up to him, except maybe for the inability to properly pronounce Stargell.
We met Richie at Gate D. I always met Richie at Gate D in 1999. Always to that point was three games, but it felt like forever. Richie drove in from Long Island, from a town not all that far from mine, so he wasn’t a bad guy to know when the game was over. “You sure?” I’d ask when he offered me a ride. “I can take the train.” But he was sure it was no big deal. Richie coached Little League, including his 12-year-old son that year. Richie knew pitching. Richie knew baseball. Richie was not that much older than me, but in 1999 I kind of adopted him as the baseball big brother I’d never had.
I never know what to make of the stew I create when I introduce various acquaintances and friends. Theoretically, Richie and Laurie knew one another as they had sprung to life from the same electronic message board. Because I did not mention their screen names, Laurie had no idea until I confirmed it that Richie was the same guy on AOL who composed the Lynyrd Skynyrd parody “Ooh, That’s Mel” for Mel Rojas. When she knew that, she was truly impressed. As for Yuri, he was slipping back into his preternatural goofiness which Richie decided to take advantage of. Richie is an electrician but told Yuri he was a state trooper. Yuri pestered him on and off throughout the evening for stories of high-speed chases.
Prior to the 7:40 start (the last year the Mets would wait that long for first pitch), we were told we had a special guest on the field. It was the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. He has quite a reputation these days as an America-hating strongman (who, to be fair, provides extra security for the family of Johan Santana) but back then he was just some visiting dignitary — in town to drum up financial support for his home country, the socialist Chavez slammed the closing gavel to end the day’s trading on the New York Stock Exchange — invited to throw out the first ball. He took some pictures with Venezuelan second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo and was honored with the playing of the Venezuelan national anthem.
Venezuela. Canada for the Blue Jays. USA for the rest of us. Three anthems that night. Has to be a Shea record.
Hugo Chavez, even once you know his reputation, was clearly not the most unlikable public figure on the Shea field that June night. That distinction belonged to Blue Jay starter David Wells. Thirteen months earlier, Wells pitched a perfect game elsewhere in the city. Eight months prior he had become a world champion. Now he was a Torontoan, exiled north so a fine, upstanding man of character named Roger Clemens could take his job (and maybe a few shots of “lidocaine and B12″ to the ass region). Barely 18,000 were charmed enough to sit in on this Interleague special. Far too many of them applauded Wells when he took the mound. Far too many of them sat to our right. Three broads (the only way to properly describe them) dressed and behaving like David Wells greeted him effusively and repeatedly. I’d rather have sat near the America-hating strongman.
They whooped it up as Wells went largely untouched and our pitcher, the low-profile Rick Reed, was nicked for solo homers by Jose Cruz, Jr. and Darrin Fletcher (a Reeder nemesis, according to resident Reederologist Laurie) plus an RBI double by Carlos Delgado. It was 3-0 by the fourth and there was nothing in Wells’ performance to indicate the Mets would do a damn thing about it. YEAH, BOOMER! they bellowed. What can you say to that when you’re down 3-0?
Reed left after six and Laurie (annoyed by the fleeting presence of a woman she identified as a Mets camp follower, someone who knew Richie from the online world…and to think I used to be amazed that people ran into people they knew at Shea Stadium) followed shortly thereafter. It was going to be a quick night, she figured, a quick 3-0 loss and she was tired. That made it me and Richie the non-state trooper and Yuri the gullible ad salesman with the strange client base and the Wells broads and some otherwise distracted patrons who were following a Knicks playoff game via cell phone. I would not have given the Mets much chance of making their post-purge mark 4-0 when they came up for last licks. But at least it would be quick.
Ah, but these were the ’99 Mets! These were the Mets who had already established a precedent for ninth-inning drama a few Sundays earlier when they trailed another accomplished starter, Curt Schilling, by four and scored five. That one I watched glumly on television, waiting impatiently for the last out so I could take that shower I’d been putting off all afternoon. The last out never came and the shower didn’t take place until I jumped up and down in front of the TV and pounded the couch and shouted “GOOD! GOOD! I HATE THAT GUY!” as Schilling marched off in defeat. (For the family-nature sake of this blog, let’s say I was fully dressed while I did that.) The Mets were down three-nothing to Wells in the ninth? Hell, they’d been down four-nothing to Schilling.
In 1999, precedent meant something. Maybe it was because his groupies took off after eight, maybe it was because he was due at the China Club for a belated birthday celebration, maybe it was because David Wells Sucks, but he didn’t have a ninth any better than Schilling. Rickey Henderson (whose first-inning steal delighted Yuri as he had never seen him in person before) grounded out, but Hugo Chavez’s and my favorite Met, Fonzie, got on via single. John Olerud forced him at second, but Oly managed to leg it to first. Piazza singled him to third. On what had to be de facto defensive indifference on a Wells Girl-size scale, Mike stole second (Yuri should have been more impressed by that particular SB). Then Robin Ventura — whose seemingly innocent two-run homer that made it 4-2 on May 23 served as warning shot to Schilling and the Phils — singled to center.
Now instead of 3-0, it was 3-2. Now instead of Wells being one inning away from a shutout, he was lifted. Now instead of Yankees fans thinking this was a good night to come to Shea and be asinine, it was a night for Mets fans to jump up and down and punch inanimate objects and express their vitriol for Blue Jays pitchers and affirm their belief that you don’t leave before the final out.
In came Billy Koch of Rockville Centre, practically my neighbor from Long Island. I’d never heard of him, but Richie had (of course he did; Richie knew pitching). He can throw hard, Richie warned me. And he did. He may have been a little anxious, however, as this was his Shea debut and Shea is a lot closer to RVC than SkyDome is. In front of what remained of 18,254 and however many RVC relatives Koch left passes for, Billy the kid attempted to mow down Brian McRae. Normally, that wasn’t so tough. But B-Mac got a piece of the ball and lined it to short left, far enough to drive in pinch-runner Luis Lopez from second and place himself there in his stead with a double.
Hey, we didn’t lose! Hey, we tied it up! Hey, we’re still playing! HEY, WHERE’S YOUR DAVID WELLS NOW?
It would have been very tidy to have won the game right away, but Jays manager Jim Fregosi (always a welcome sight at Shea) intentionally walked Roger Cedeño to bring up Rey Ordoñez to set up a force at any number of bases, all of which Rey-Rey was capable of tapping toward weakly. Ordoñez, however crossed up the Toronto strategy by tapping weakly to Koch. He threw to Delgado and we were headed to extras.
Extras at Shea. If it ends in ten, it’s no big deal. Eleven means you know you’ve gotten your money’s worth. The twelfth inning is when it all starts to feel kind of kooky. It felt that way in the stands, as Yuri began to insist that he really needed to get home and Richie revealed he was due on a job site at 5:30 in the A.M. But when you’ve gotten this far into the process, how can you abandon it?
We got to the twelfth and we sat tight. The Knicks finished their playoff game, a big win judging by the cheers. The Mets couldn’t finish theirs. Koch did Rockville Centre proud even as he annoyed us, rendering the tenth and eleventh moot, same as Dennis Cook and John Franco did to the Blue Jays, just harder. Bobby V ran through his reserves, sending up just about everybody, save Benny Agbayani. Benny was Honolulu-hot then, already a partially fledged cult hero by the second week in June; he was hitting .409 and had smacked two homers Monday night. It was mysterious to us that he wasn’t called on. We found out later that he fouled a ball off his substantial self or during BP and was thus unavailable. It’s one of those things for which you can be at the ballpark for hours and hours and not know if somebody doesn’t fill you in. Nobody did.
The same could be said of the most famous moment from June 9, 1999, perhaps the signature image from one man’s career in New York, at least as some of his detractors (and possibly his supporters) choose to see it. In the twelfth, with long man Pat Mahomes following Reed, Wendell, Cook and Franco to the mound, Shannon Stewart reached for the Jays. He took off for second and Piazza unleashed a throw surprisingly equal to the task of catching Shannon stealing. We who remained said, ALL RIGHT! for we thought Stewart had been gunned down. ‘Cept Randy Marsh gave the batter, Craig Grebeck, first and Stewart second on catcher’s interference. We booed. We called Marsh a lousy scab based on my flawed recollection that he was a replacement ump in ’79 (never once using such language on our Reeder, who was just trying to make a decent living, get off his back). Richie, IBEW 3 member in good standing, cried for “a good union ump” to take Marsh’s place.
No dice. Marsh wasn’t going anywhere. Bobby Valentine was, however. He argued, he was tossed. We cheered the pointless cheers that fans cheer when they don’t get their way but imagine their cause has been rightly defended. We could see Piazza hadn’t interfered. We could see Stewart should have been out. We could see Valentine was valiant.
What we couldn’t see was Bobby V return to the dugout in what would eventually be considered his trademark disguise: the shades, the fake mustache (two eyeblack patches), the cap whose non-baseball logo I’ve never quite deciphered. I think he got it from the grounds crew. He reappeared in the dugout, the one place in which his appearance was verboten. It was picked up by the TV cameras, but not in the third base field boxes. We had no idea that a 3-3 game in the twelfth with no end in sight (thanks to the recurringly life-saving Mahomes, the kind of long reliever good teams seem to conjure out of nowhere) was not the story of the evening. The story was Bobby Valentine, the crazy insufferable genius gadfly self-promoting SOB manager to end all managers couldn’t just loiter in the runway like every other ejected skipper since the days of Muggsy McGraw. If your Rorschach on Bobby V was he was an unbalanced attention hound, you didn’t care for his alibi that he was just poking his head in to keep the guys loose. If you believed, as I did on most nights, that Bobby perfected whatever aspects of baseball he didn’t invent, you found it amusing, even uplifting; hell, he emblazoned a caricature of himself in that sneaky garb of his on the cover of the menus at the restaurant he opened across the Grand Central two years later. But if you were at Shea Stadium in the twelfth inning on June 9, 1999, mostly you found out about it later.
Later is what it got. Yuri still kept threatening to leave, but didn’t. Richie still had to get up early, but ignored that reality. I just wanted a happy ending, a three-game sweep of the Blue Jays and a four-game Mets winning streak. Mahomes got out of Marsh’s mess in the twelfth. Graeme Lloyd replaced Koch and picked up where he left off. Nothing for the Mets in the bottom of twelve. Nothing for the Jays in the top of thirteen. David Wells was probably beating up coffee shop patrons in Manhattan by now and Hugo Chavez likely began to think ill of America after one too many cold, hard Aramark pretzels, but we loyal Mets fans and stray Pirates fans continued to watch baseball. Lloyd gave up a single to Henderson (no SB) but then got Alfonzo, Mahomes (good hitter) and Piazza in the bottom of the thirteenth. Pat struck out Chris Woodward, walked Willis Otañez (Shawn Green, the Jewish Jay and best landsman seen at Shea since Shamsky, pinch-ran; I applauded lightly in observance of one of his identities while rooting for a pick-off in deference to his other more pressing characteristic) but took care of Stewart and Grebeck before Marsh could do any more damage.
Middle of the fourteenth. We’d wondered if we’d hear “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” a second time. We did. A very punchy performance by everybody. The whole thing about not caring if we ever get back took on a whole difference resonance. The clock had already struck midnight. This was now the game of June 9 and June 10, Eastern Daylight Time, no less.
All right, Mets — get serious and win this thing!
We’d been thinking and saying words to that effect since yesterday, but now we meant it. Lo and behold, here came some 1999 Mets to the rescue against fourth Toronto reliever Tom Davey: Luis Lopez, destined to be left off the postseason roster, walked; Brian McRae, traded at the deadline for Darryl Hamilton, did the same; after Dan Plesac replaced Davey, Roger Cedeño, whose distant future would sadden drastically inside Shea’s blue walls, bunted them over. And now it was up to Rey Ordoñez to end this thing.
In the third, Rey-Rey popped to third.
In the fifth, Rey-Rey flied to center.
In the eighth, Rey-Rey grounded to short.
In the ninth, Rey-Rey grounded to the pitcher…but you already knew that.
In the twelfth, Rey-Rey grounded to short again.
You can’t say Rey-Rey wasn’t getting his bat on the ball. And when you do that, who the hell knows what will happen next? In this case, Ordoñez, who had actually been hitting well of late — not just for him, but for a professional baseball player (6-for-9 in the first two games of this series) — swung, made contact and lifted a fly to left, over the head of the drawn-in Jacob Brumfield. Rey-Rey’s otherwise unremarkable fly scored his buddy Luis Lopez from third and just like that, after four hours and thirty-five minutes, your New York Mets were 4-3 winners in fourteen.
Can’t say a Rey Ordoñez single to secure a walkoff win is anticlimactic, yet a little bit of me hoped to challenge those 23- and 25-inning marathons from Shea lore, but Yuri’s wife would have begun to wonder and Richie had to get up soon and, come to think of it, so did I. My first order of business later that morning would be to call Ed at the major brewer and thank him — it was never any skin off Ed’s nose, but until he was transferred out of media relations in the early ’00s and could no longer provide those ducats, the Mets never lost a single game for which he sent me tickets…except for one in the Bronx, but road games are in a different section of The Log and therefore don’t count.
Yuri praised this game as the one game to see if he was going to see one at Shea Stadium in his life, and I’m pretty sure that was it for him. Richie praised coffee and graciously gave me a lift home; the LIRR would have meant a long Woodside wait that late. When I walked in the door, I grabbed The Log as always and entered the essentials. Technically, this was my second fourteen-inning game, my second fourteen-inning win and even my second 4:35 elapsed. Technically, June 9, 1999 only tied March 31, 1998 — the previous season’s opener — for longest in The Log, but that one was a day game. Trust me, this one lasted longer.
It was also momentous in another self-absorbed way. With the victory, my record (or the Mets’ with me in home attendance) edged up to 77-75. Since early ’98, I’d been climbing above .500 only to dip back under a few ill-timed losses later. I was three outs from getting tangled up in that tango of mediocrity once more, but Ventura, McRae, Mahomes, Ordoñez and the inspirational Bobby V all teamed to save me. That night began a 10-1 stretch inside The Log, a run that would set the tone for the life of The Log. If I can avoid going 0-33 in 2008, I will kiss Shea goodbye with a winning regular-season record. Having plunged as low as 38-53 at one point in my Sheagoing history, I consider that a significant if totally passive accomplishment on my part.
The Log’s page-turning 10-1 stretch peaked on August 6, a 2-1 win over the Dodgers, which also happened to be the 55th game since upper management put Bobby on notice and Bobby declared he’d go 40-15 over the next two months. That magnificent bastard did exactly that. He and his players, that is. They were 67-43 and had taken first place in the N.L. East. The Mets would cool off a bit as summer wound down, but there would be plenty of tricks left up their collective sleeve in 1999. It would prove to be a very good year for never leaving Shea before the final out.
Acknowledgement must be paid to FAFIF reader Jerry Balsam for reminding me out of the blue last year that Hugo Chavez was a visitor to Shea that night. I also tip my cap toward The Ballclub for its excellent Lost Classics account of this very same game which served to jog my memory on a couple of other helpful details.